“Isn’t it kind of late for you to be going to the Winter Palace?”Ili asked as Mini threw his cloak over his shoulders, just about to step into the carriage. “And it’s raining. You’re going to be there after dark! Grandfather’s already in bed so I’ll pass on his goodbyes! But you won’t be there before Ninth bead!”
“Closer to mid-night,” Gan said poking his head out of the glass carriage. It truly wasn’t all glass, but it was so airy and the wood was gilded it was hard to see the edges of the windows once the interior lamps were lit. It glowed already in the hall, with the Duli pair just being backed into place.
The stable hall was bustling with grooms and the Sunborne Elite standing by their ‘precious treasures’. Most of them had a riding horse with the odd, gliding gait that could be comfortably ridden for hours, and just to make sure they had their war horses tacked up as well, just in case, being led by a string behind them. Most of the war horses were gray as Duli, nearly white, but many were darker, almost black on the legs and mane and tails and noses. The palfreys were all colours, mostly bays and browns. Not like Lakans who adored their black horses, of whatever breed. “We had a nap this afternoon, so we slept through the worst of the thunderstorm.” He winked at Minis who laughed and stepped up onto the step. The driver and the groom and the boy were all checking that the outside lamps were well lit and tightly hooded with their storm covers.
“It’s just drizzling now.”
“Min, can I borrow Nasty and all the Mahid horses?” He stopped on the step and turned around.
“Certainly, Ili. Which country are we invading? Or is this more training with Eosas?”
“Aw, I’m not invading any country. I wanted to show Sukala. And there’s a test I want to run the bodyguards through.”
“A new one?” Both his brother’s eyebrows were up. “Did you…”
“I asked grandfather and the stable master and Eosas and they all thought it was a good idea.”
“Oh, all right then. When you’re done, come up to the Winter Palace for a bit. We can have a family feast there before you and I need to be back for the Solstice Ritual.”
Ili jumped up and made the whole carriage rock sideways on its springs. It was raining steadily enough that a palanquin just wouldn’t have been appropriate. He hugged Minis once more and reached in to clasp Gan’s hand. “See you soon. I’ll bring Sukala along! I like her.”
“Excellent. Why not any of our other guests?”
“Quite right. I trust the Marble Palace staff to entertain them while we’re gone. We’re nearly at the end of the trials anyway. We’ll be able to announce the final names at Solstice.” He nodded. “Yes, Gan, yes Antras, sorry.” He stepped all the way in to let Antras follow him.
Antras stepped up with a gentleman’s case in his hands and stepped in after the other two men, closing the door behind.
“Bye! Good-bye till I fly!” Ili waved both hands as everyone mounted up and the gate to the ramp was slid open, letting wind and rain blow in almost to where Ili stood, making the horses shake their heads and shudder their skins. The red and gold glass carriage looked unreal in the alcohol lights, glowing from the shielded lamps inside as it, as it rumbled into the dark outside.
Sukala came with Ili next day. “So how are you going to find out which one is our brute?” she asked him.
Ili looked grim. “I’m going to let Killer tell me.”
“Sounds dangerous for someone.”
“I won’t let him hurt anyone.”
“Well, horses aren’t well known for listening.”
“It’ll be all right.” They stopped at Nasty’s stall where Sukala gathered his big nose in, scratching and whispering in his ears.
“I’m not a horse person. I’m more a goat person,” she said.
“Yeah. Sure.” She had enough apples to give every one of the Mahid horses in this stable wing a half and had them nodding after her as they went down the line to the riding ring, her capes and fringes fluttering brightly.
“So you train the riding here? My glorious Scourge never showed me this part of this Palace.” Her wrinkled old apple face was bright with curiosity as she looked around.
“This is the inside ring,” Ili said. “Did you want to sit up with the Judges and my pseudo-mama?”
She shrugged. “I’ll sit right here in the first ring of seats by the doors.”
The riding ring had narrow windows all the way around the top, just under the roof, and skylights all along the roof ridge, laying a broken line of brilliant sunlight down the centre. The roof vents were all open and the cool, after-rain smelling wind blew in, heating up fast.
The gallery of seats all around were raised up, over a horse’s head high out of the sand and sawdust, fronted with wood and had posts carved like smooth trees. The throne chair at the opposite end was empty because Minis wasn’t there, but the portrait of Nuninian the Feckless gazed serenely from the wall above it.
The crowd was already present for Ili’s Challenge. The Challenge Judges and First Ilesias sat on the end to one side of the empty throne. On the other side First Amitzas sat next to Inensa. Most of the younger people from the Fortunate Fifty were in the seats down either side, and all of Ili’s companions and schoolmates. Sinimas and Kafiris were there with a bunch of cub reporters rustling their notebooks, fiddling with their pens. That pretty much filled the gallery, all the way to this end, where the Bodyguard Challengers sat, all two hundred of those left. Five clerks of Assembly sat with them, taking notes on their comportment.
Sukala settled down in the seat given up to her by one of the men just as the Head Groom walked in leading Killer, bare except for a hackmore and a loose line, the measured beat of a shod horse walking, ringing in the corridor.